Seriously, the ground is thick with the bastards — Facebook ‘friends’, Insta influencers and WhatsApp warlords who pick through the latest graph, parsing it for factoids they do not have the expertise to process: “That’s not a real flattening, but what I term the ‘Singapore blip’….”
Sure it is, chief.
Indeed, this is the age of the lay expert. But having access to information is not the same as possessing the ability to understand it — if anything, 21st-century societies have become fragile precisely because we have unfettered access to the Matrix, which, like maize or N95 face-masks have become a commodity.
The pimping of information is not a new phenomenon, but it has been massively accelerated by the advent of social media. Facebook is the largest publishing mechanism in the history of our species — the Gutenberg press on thermonuclear steroids. It’s an entity so powerful that it has warped how we function as individuals in our interlinked societies. It preys on our desire for connection — our desire to know — and uses the multiplying effect of these impulses to sell, sell, sell while dishing out epidemiology degrees to Karen and Kevin so every neighbourhood WhatsApp group can have their very own health expert.
As the philosopher, Byung-Chul Han, noted in his seminal treatise The Transparency Society, “Digital transparency is … pornographic. Moreover, it brings forth economic panoptica. The goal is not moral purification of the heart, but maximal profit, maximal attention. Utter illumination promises maximal gains.”
Far from the utopias we were promised in the early days of the interwebs, social networks have exacerbated existing divisions — transparency has, in some cases, led to darkness. Unsurprisingly, just as with food or minerals, information-as-commodity can be weaponised. In the old days, it was by starving the market of information. Now, it’s by flooding the zone with so much noise, we don’t know who to trust. The obvious example is the 2016 US election, where an unending Vic Falls of “fake news” was in some cases washed into the body politic by malevolent foreign actors and Google-enabled profiteers. (Give us a wave, Uncle Vlad.)
And then, the pandemic no one wanted emerged from Wuhan, China. It is the industrial disease of globalisation, the carpal tunnel syndrome of unmitigated information. The more we know, the less we know: The Covid-19 crisis reminds us of our need for an informational true north — something that would process the amorphous glut into the opposite of pornography.
Into an art.
Here I’m not referring to the plastic arts or film or music, although I mean that too. I mean an art of synthesis — the art of making sense. This is what journalism at its best aspires to do. There are, however, two main ingredients that have been missing from mainstream journalism in the wake of 9/11.
The first is trust.
The second is independence.
The digital revolution has disrupted journalism to such an extent that the old ways are over forever — no longer can we sustain ourselves on classified ads and CNA flyers. Instead, we have turned to our readers. The exchange is simple: we give you curated information you can trust. We go to credible sources, with the appropriate qualifications. You give us the ability to keep doing that by becoming a community that we can trust — not just for financial support, but for tips, expertise and timely fact-checking. Who watches the watchmen? Our audience does. If we lose you, we lose everything.
Consider it this way: We keep you safe from the Covid drunk uncles and their bloviating. You keep us safe from the fetters of corporate or government bullying. That allows us to keep telling the truth, without the corrupting pressure of having to tell it first. Twitter breaks news. We fix it.
The faux-epidemiologists and economists manque are having their day. But no one can predict what is coming in the next year — the world, and South Africa along with it will face unprecedented ructions. Our job is to transform the noise into artful clarity.
South Africa, DM